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Posted: Sun Aug 19 2012
It’s a pretty drive along the D947 into Saumur, with the expanses of the River Loire on one side and a succession of bucolic villages on the other (or you can catch a train from Paris). This was the Plantagenet’s favourite country, and even in death their presence is all-pervading at Fontevraud Abbey (Fontevraud, 02.41.51.73.52), most intact medieval abbey in France, where Henry II of England and Richard the Lion Heart are entombed. The area also has a particularly large concentration of cave-dwellings, such as the quirky Château de Brézé (Brézé, 02.41.51.60.15)with its underground troglodyte village set in Europe’s deepest dried moat, invisible to all but those standing on top of it.
Saumur lies on the banks of the Loire, and unlike Amboise or Chinon, it feels like it has a life outside of the tourist season: It’s larger for a start, with more shops (especially on rue St-Jean the main shopping street), including familiar chains that can add a refreshing sense of normality after chateaux-hopping. There are also over 62 listed historic monuments freckled among its 18th century mansions and narrow, twisting streets, which climb up to a turreted, fairytale fortress, with spectacular the views over the town.
Saumur’s other intrigue is its Cadre Noir cavalry school (Terrefort-Saumur, 02.41.53.50.50). The town has been the capital of classical French horse riding since the 17th-century, and its ‘Black Squad’ are particularly good at equestrian choreography and jumping (several riders are Olympic gold medallists). Just outside the town centre, the Cadre Noir frequently giddy up in the Grand Manège (arena) showing off French riding techniques to the general public; and in May, July and October, there are often special public galas with displays set to music.
Of course, no trip to Saumur is complete without sampling the wine. All around the town, the riverbanks of the Loire rise gently to meet vine-covered slopes growing varieties such as the Caberbet France, Chardonnay and Chenin used to make full-bodied, fruity reds like the Saumur-Champigny, and crisp, woody whites - especially the sparkling ones which are easily the best outside of the Champagne region. The Maison des Vins (Quai Lucien Gautier, 02.41.38.45.83) next door to the Tourist Office offers tastings of 30 official Anjou and Saumur AOC wines; and the D947, on the way into Saumur, is lined with enticing private wine cellars (mainly rosés).
For more information on Saumur consult the Tourist Office website.